A Brief Rant on the Future of Interaction Design


So, here's a Vision Of The Future that's popular right now.

It's a lot of this sort of thing.

As it happens, designing Future Interfaces For The Future used to be my line of work. I had the opportunity to design with real working prototypes, not green screens and After Effects, so there certainly are some interactions in the video which I'm a little skeptical of, given that I've actually tried them and the animators presumably haven't. But that's not my problem with the video.

My problem is the opposite, really — this vision, from an interaction perspective, is not visionary. It's a timid increment from the status quo, and the status quo, from an interaction perspective, is actually rather terrible.

This matters, because visions matter. Visions give people a direction and inspire people to act, and a group of inspired people is the most powerful force in the world. If you're a young person setting off to realize a vision, or an old person setting off to fund one, I really want it to be something worthwhile. Something that genuinely improves how we interact.

This little rant isn't going to lay out any grand vision or anything. I just hope to suggest some places to look.


Before we think about how we should interact with our Tools Of The Future, let's consider what a tool is in the first place.

I like this definition:   A tool addresses human needs by amplifying human capabilities.

That is, a tool converts what we can do into what we want to do. A great tool is designed to fit both sides.

In this rant, I'm not going to talk about human needs. Everyone talks about that; it's the single most popular conversation topic in history.

And I'm not going to talk about about technology. That's the easy part, in a sense, because we control it. Technology can be invented; human nature is something we're stuck with.

I'm going to talk about that neglected third factor, human capabilities. What people can do. Because if a tool isn't designed to be used by a person, it can't be a very good tool, right?

Take another look at what our Future People are using to interact with their Future Technology:

Do you see what everyone is interacting with? The central component of this Interactive Future? It's there in every photo!

That's right! —


And that's great! I think hands are fantastic! Hands make us human! It's even there in the word — human, man, mankind — manual, la mano, la main. Our hands literally define us.

Hands do two things. They are two utterly amazing things, and you rely on them every moment of the day, and most Future Interaction Concepts completely ignore both of them.

Hands feel things, and hands manipulate things.


Go ahead and pick up a book. Open it up to some page.

Notice how you know where you are in the book by the distribution of weight in each hand, and the thickness of the page stacks between your fingers. Turn a page, and notice how you would know if you grabbed two pages together, by how they would slip apart when you rub them against each other.

Go ahead and pick up a glass of water. Take a sip.

Notice how you know how much water is left, by how the weight shifts in response to you tipping it.

Almost every object in the world offers this sort of feedback. It's so taken for granted that we're usually not even aware of it. Take a moment to pick up the objects around you. Use them as you normally would, and sense their tactile response — their texture, pliability, temperature; their distribution of weight; their edges, curves, and ridges; how they respond in your hand as you use them.

There's a reason that our fingertips have some of the densest areas of nerve endings on the body. This is how we experience the world close-up. This is how our tools talk to us. The sense of touch is essential to everything that humans have called "work" for millions of years.

Now, take out your favorite Magical And Revolutionary Technology Device. Use it for a bit.

What did you feel? Did it feel glassy? Did it have no connection whatsoever with the task you were performing?

I call this technology Pictures Under Glass. Pictures Under Glass sacrifice all the tactile richness of working with our hands, offering instead a hokey visual facade.

Is that so bad, to dump the tactile for the visual? Try this: close your eyes and tie your shoelaces. No problem at all, right? Now, how well do you think you could tie your shoes if your arm was asleep? Or even if your fingers were numb? When working with our hands, touch does the driving, and vision helps out from the back seat.

To take this to an extreme, imagine that you're completely blind. Yeah, that's a tough life, but you can still pretty much take care of yourself and do the things that people do. Do you know what it's called when you lose all sense of touch? It's called paralysis, and they push you around in a wheelchair while you calculate black hole radiation.

Pictures Under Glass is an interaction paradigm of permanent numbness. It's a Novocaine drip to the wrist. It denies our hands what they do best. And yet, it's the star player in every Vision Of The Future.

To me, claiming that Pictures Under Glass is the future of interaction is like claiming that black-and-white is the future of photography. It's obviously a transitional technology. And the sooner we transition, the better.


What can you do with a Picture Under Glass? You can slide it.

That's the fundamental gesture in this technology. Sliding a finger along a flat surface.

There is almost nothing in the natural world that we manipulate in this way.

That's pretty much all I can think of.

Okay then, how do we manipulate things? As it turns out, our fingers have an incredibly rich and expressive repertoire, and we improvise from it constantly without the slightest thought. In each of these pictures, pay attention to the positions of all the fingers, what's applying pressure against what, and how the weight of the object is balanced:

Many of these are variations on the four fundamental grips. (And if you like this sort of thing, you should read John Napier's wonderful book.)

Suppose I give you a jar to open. You actually will switch between two different grips:

You've made this switch with every jar you've ever opened. Not only without being taught, but probably without ever realizing you were doing it. How's that for an intuitive interface?

We live in a three-dimensional world. Our hands are designed for moving and rotating objects in three dimensions, for picking up objects and placing them over, under, beside, and inside each other. No creature on earth has a dexterity that compares to ours.

The next time you make a sandwich, pay attention to your hands. Seriously! Notice the myriad little tricks your fingers have for manipulating the ingredients and the utensils and all the other objects involved in this enterprise. Then compare your experience to sliding around Pictures Under Glass.

Are we really going to accept an Interface Of The Future that is less expressive than a sandwich?


So then. What is the Future Of Interaction?

The most important thing to realize about the future is that it's a choice. People choose which visions to pursue, people choose which research gets funded, people choose how they will spend their careers.

Despite how it appears to the culture at large, technology doesn't just happen. It doesn't emerge spontaneously, like mold on cheese. Revolutionary technology comes out of long research, and research is performed and funded by inspired people.

And this is my plea — be inspired by the untapped potential of human capabilities. Don't just extrapolate yesterday's technology and then cram people into it.

This photo could very well could be our future. But why? Why choose that? It's a handheld device that ignores our hands.

Our hands feel things, and our hands manipulate things. Why aim for anything less than a dynamic medium that we can see, feel, and manipulate?

There is a smattering of active research in related areas. It's been smattering along for decades. This research has always been fairly marginalized, and still is. But maybe you can help.

And yes, the fruits of this research are still crude, rudimentary, and sometimes kind of dubious. But look

In 1968 — three years before the invention of the microprocessor — Alan Kay stumbled across Don Bitzer's early flat-panel display. Its resolution was 16 pixels by 16 pixels — an impressive improvement over their earlier 4 pixel by 4 pixel display.

Alan saw those 256 glowing orange squares, and he went home, and he picked up a pen, and he drew a picture of a goddamn iPad.

And then he chased that carrot through decades of groundbreaking research, much of which is responsible for the hardware and software that you're currently reading this with.

That's the kind of ambitious, long-range vision I'm talking about. Pictures Under Glass is old news. Let's start using our hands.


If you're with me so far, maybe I can nudge you one step further. Look down at your hands. Are they attached to anything? Yes — you've got arms! And shoulders, and a torso, and legs, and feet! And they all move!

Any dancer or doctor knows full well what an incredibly expressive device your body is. 300 joints! 600 muscles! Hundreds of degrees of freedom!

The next time you make breakfast, pay attention to the exquisitely intricate choreography of opening cupboards and pouring the milk — notice how your limbs move in space, how effortlessly you use your weight and balance. The only reason your mind doesn't explode every morning from the sheer awesomeness of your balletic achievement is that everyone else in the world can do this as well.

With an entire body at your command, do you seriously think the Future Of Interaction should be a single finger?

Recreating the button


Recreating the button

Until some future version of HTML gives us new native controls to use in a browser, at Google, we’ve been playing and experimenting with controls we call “custom buttons” in our apps (among other custom controls). These buttons just launched in Gmail yesterday, and they’ve been in Google Reader for two months now. The buttons are designed to look very similar to basic HTML input buttons. But they can handle multiple interactions with one basic design. The buttons we’re using are imageless, and they’re created entirely using HTML and CSS, plus some JavaScript to manage the behavior. They’re also easily skinnable with a few lines of CSS, which was a key factor now that Gmail has themes.

Gmail buttons

I thought it would be interesting to provide a portion of the background on our buttons here, and discuss some of the iterations we’ve been through so far to get to the current state.


Today’s web apps allow increasingly complex interactions. Users can view, create, manage, and manipulate all kinds of data, from email messages to feeds to photos to blog posts, or even choosing what their DVR records on any given night. We’re at the point where these apps need something beyond standard HTML form controls and basic hypertext links to represent the actions a user can take.

A basic <input type="submit"> could be used for single actions, a <select> element could be used for a compact menu of actions, and <input type="radio"> could be used for selecting mutually exclusive options. But we’re left with no way to represent other interactions common in desktop apps. Such as a checkbox that represents more than just on or off. Or the use of auto-complete to refine or narrow the options in a drop-down menu. On top of this, the controls we can render have significantly different appearances across browsers and platforms. Even within a single browser, buttons and select menus have quite different designs.

Enter: the concept of custom buttons.

The first iteration

Not long after I started at Google, I remember seeing mockups for a new product that eventually become Google Spreadsheets. The mockups I saw used simple buttons that looked similar to default HTML buttons in certain browsers. But they were subtly different than any default buttons I had ever seen before. The giveaway was seeing three buttons sandwiched together to make a pill button:

Spreadsheet buttons

At first, I thought they were just generic browser-agnostic representations — and wishful thinking for the appearance — of actual HTML buttons. But once we started using an internal-only version of the product, I realized this button design actually got built into the product. That was fine. But I cringed when I realized how the buttons had been implemented. Each button was set up with a nine-cell table so they could place each corner image, and still allow the button to expand in all four directions according to the width and height of the text inside:

nine-cell table

Eliminating the table and corner images

button 2.0 I knew there had to be a better way to render these buttons than using tables, and especially nine-cell tables just for the tiny little corners. So I tried creating a few prototypes to improve our button code. My first button attempt, which I named Custom Buttons 2.0, (version 1.0 would be the nine-cell tabled version done by one of our engineers) used a similar trick that I used for event chips in Google Calendar: the top border was one element with 1px left and right margins, the middle of the button was another element with left and right borders, and the bottom border recycled the styles of the top border with 1px left and right margins. This created a one-pixel notch in each of the four corners, giving the subtle illusion of a small rounded corner.

That 2.0 attempt was fine, and worked pretty well (as I expected) in almost all browsers. But it required that each button as a whole either be floated or positioned absolutely with a width. I wanted a set of buttons that could be treated as inline elements, and that would take up as much horizontal space as the text inside each button needed.

Going inline

My 3.0 attempt relied on treating the buttons and everything inside them as inline elements. The top/bottom borders still needed to be rendered separately from the left/right borders to get 1px-notched corners. The left/right borders were rendered on the outer element. The top/bottom borders were rendered on the inner element. Because borders don’t compound and add to the width or height of an inline element, we get the 1px notches in each corner. I ran into a lot of frustration with this inline approach until I remembered display: inline-block. That seemed to solve everything at once.

Demo page for Custom Buttons 3.0 A demo page for Custom Buttons 3.0 shows my progress to this point. As you can see there, I built in affordances for changing the border color on hover, and for reversing the gradient direction for the active/click state to make it feel like the button is actually pressable. I also attempted to show how we could sandwich multiple buttons together to form a pill button. The pill button wasn’t perfect — I didn’t want gaps in the top/bottom borders between each button. But it was a start.

The magical inline-block solved everything, except in IE. That’s where the genius of Google engineers came in. They knew how to get tricks working in all browsers, and this technique interested a couple of them enough that they dedicated the time to make it work.

So 3.0 buttons were fine. After some modifications by our engineers, they made it into live production code. I believe 3.0 buttons are currently still in use for edit buttons in Google Sites, and in editor modes for Google Docs. (As of this writing. Expect those to change in the near future to buttons described below.) But I was still bothered by the requirement of a background gradient image. Not only was this an extra request to the server, but if anyone wanted to change the colors of a button, they’d be required to create a new gradient image. This wasn’t flexible enough, in my opinion, and I thought we could push further.

Eliminating the gradient image

Instead of rendering the gradient with an image, I thought we might be able to simulate a gradient with a few bands of color. With a few light grays laid beside each other that were close enough in value, we’d get something that looked like a gradient. With only two bands of color, I got a glossy-looking button with a sharp division between the two bands of color. Not what I wanted. Adding a third band of color between the first two colors blended each color together better. So three color bands it had to be.

To get that band of color and fake the gradient, I had to insert one more element in the button code. I chose <b> because it was short, and semantically, it didn’t mean anything. That element was absolutely positioned, so it could live inside the button and behind the text without affecting anything else. For the button itself, I used the almost-white #f9f9f9. For the <b> element I used #e3e3e3. The <b> element was absolutely positioned to the bottom of the button, and given a height of 40%. To get the middle band of color, I added a top border of #eee to the <b> element.

Another demo page for Custom Buttons 3.1 shows my attempt at getting this pseudo-gradient to work. It works in Firefox and Safari, and probably a few other modern browsers. But not everywhere. It was never perfect, and I don’t recommend using it in production code. Again, I couldn’t get this working right in IE. Google eng to the rescue again. To see the final code we ended up using in Gmail and Reader, you’ll have to reverse engineer the button code in one of those products.

Sweating the details

If we were going to undertake the task of recreating basic HTML form controls, we knew there were a lot of details that need to be accounted for and thought through. Like all the possible states of a button: resting, hover, focus, active, toggled-on, and disabled. There are also the accessibility ramifications of creating non-standard controls. I’m sure we haven’t factored in or solved every access issue yet. But engineers are working on that. Here’s a glimpse of the many states and types of buttons, along with the visual specs we had to think about and create if we were really going to replace default buttons and menus:

Visual spec for Custom Buttons 3.1

Major credit

I certainly didn’t create the concept of custom buttons at Google. Nor did I write the final code that made it into production. I merely initiated a couple steps to improve the methods we use to render custom buttons. My portion of the iteration is what’s documented here. There were many other steps in making these buttons a reality.

These buttons never would have made it into production code without the help of several Google engineers. One of the primary aids, Emil Eklund, helped fix a lot of my code for these custom buttons, and got it working in the browsers Gmail supports. He just posted an entry on the Official Gmail Blog yesterday about the label and folder-like functionality behind the new buttons in Gmail. Two developers (no longer at Google) also contributed heavily to the original button code: Ryan Carver and Greg Veen. They deserve huge props too.

Even more credit for the launch of these buttons in Gmail goes to one of the Gmail designers, Michael Leggett, who dreamed up all the fancy new functionality and interactions behind applying labels. Michael gave me lots of feedback and suggestions as we were building the original specs for 3.0 and 3.1 buttons. He also created countless iterations of the button interactions for Gmail, and endured numerous reviews and feedback cycles to finally get them launched in the product. If you like the new labeling menus in Gmail, Michael is the one to thank. The menus are especially slick if you use the new v and l keyboard shortcuts, along with auto-complete to apply labels (and even archive at the same time) without ever touching your mouse.

There are numerous other designers, developers, and engineers at Google who touched these buttons at one point or another. They all deserve credit too. I’ve only given props to four of the most prolific people who made these buttons a reality.

These buttons don’t permeate the entire Gmail or Reader interfaces yet for all browsers. (e.g. Compose view is still using default buttons for older WebKit browsers.) But now that these buttons are reusable components, expect to see us using them in more places throughout Google as we find good uses for them.